Toshiro Mifune was born on 1 April 1920 in Qingdao, Shandong, China, to Japanese parents. His parents were Methodist missionaries working there. Mifune grew up with his parents and two younger siblings in Dalian, Liaoning, China, and, from 4 to 19 years of age, in Manchuria.
In his youth, Mifune worked in the photography shop of his father Tokuzo, a commercial photographer and importer who had emigrated from northern Japan. After spending the first 19 years of his life in China, as a Japanese citizen, he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army Aviation division, where he served in the Aerial Photography unit during World War II.
In 1947, one of Mifune's friends who worked for the Photography Department of Toho Productions suggested Mifune try out for the Photography Department. He was accepted for a position as an assistant cameraman.
At this time, a large number of Toho actors, after a prolonged strike, had left to form their own company, Shin Toho. Toho then organized a "new faces" contest to find new talent. Mifune's friends submitted an application and photo, without his knowledge. He was accepted, along with 48 others (out of roughly 4000 applicants), and allowed to take a screen test for Kajirō Yamamoto. Instructed to mime anger, he drew from his wartime experiences. Yamamoto took a liking to Mifune, recommending him to director Senkichi Taniguchi. This led to Mifune's first feature role, in Shin Baka Jidai.
Mifune first encountered director Akira Kurosawa when Toho Studios, the largest film production company in Japan, was conducting a massive talent search, during which hundreds of aspiring actors auditioned before a team of judges. Kurosawa was originally going to skip the event, but showed up when Hideko Takamine told him of one actor who seemed especially promising. Kurosawa later wrote that he entered the audition to see "a young man reeling around the room in a violent frenzy ... it was as frightening as watching a wounded beast trying to break loose. I was transfixed." When an exhausted Mifune finished his scene, he sat down and gave the judges an ominous stare. He promptly lost the competition. Kurosawa, however, had found his muse. "I am a person rarely impressed by actors," he later said. "But in the case of Mifune I was completely overwhelmed."
One of Mifune's fellow performers, one of the 32 women chosen during the new faces contest, was Sachiko Yoshimine. Eight years Mifune's junior, she came from a respected Tokyo family. They fell in love and Mifune soon proposed marriage.
Director Senkichi Taniguchi, with the help of Akira Kurosawa, convinced the Yoshimine family to allow the marriage. It took place in February 1950. In November of the same year, their first son, Shirō was born. In 1955, they had a second son, Takeshi. Mifune's daughter Mika was born to his mistress, actress Mika Kitagawa, in 1982.
His imposing bearing, acting range, facility with foreign languages and lengthy partnership with acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa made him the most famous Japanese actor of his time, and easily the best known to Western audiences. He often portrayed samurai or rōnin who were usually coarse and gruff (Kurosawa once explained that the only weakness he could find with Mifune and his acting ability was his "rough" voice), inverting the popular stereotype of the genteel, clean-cut samurai. In such films as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, he played characters who were often comically lacking in manners, but replete with practical wisdom and experience, understated nobility, and, in the case of Yojimbo, unmatched fighting prowess. Sanjuro in particular contrasts this earthy warrior spirit with the useless, sheltered propriety of the court samurai. Kurosawa highly valued Mifune for his effortless portrayal of unvarnished emotion, once commenting that he could convey in only three feet of film an emotion for which the average Japanese actor would require ten feet.
He was also known for the effort he put into his performances. To prepare for Seven Samurai and Rashomon, Mifune reportedly studied footage of lions in the wild; for Ánimas Trujano, he studied tapes of Mexican actors speaking, so he could recite all his lines in Spanish.
Mifune has been credited as originating the "roving warrior" archetype, which he perfected during his collaboration with Kurosawa. His martial arts instructor was Yoshio Sugino of the Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū. Sugino created the fight choreography for films such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, and Kurosawa instructed his actors to emulate his movements and bearing.
Clint Eastwood was among the first of many actors to adopt this wandering warrior persona Ronin with no name for foreign films, which he used to great effect in his Western roles, especially in Spaghetti Westerns directed by Sergio Leone where he played the Man with No Name, a character similar to Mifune's nameless ronin in Yojimbo.
Mifune may also be credited with originating the Yakuza archetype, with his performance as a mobster in Kurosawa's Drunken Angel (1948), the first Yakuza film.
Most of the sixteen Kurosawa–Mifune films are considered cinema classics. These include Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Rashomon, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, High and Low, Throne of Blood (an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth), Yojimbo, and Sanjuro. (See filmography, below)
Mifune and Kurosawa finally parted ways after Red Beard. Several factors contributed to the rift that ended this career-spanning collaboration. Most of Mifune's contemporaries acted in several different movies throughout the year. Since Red Beard required Mifune to grow a natural beard — one he had to keep for the entirety of the film's two years of shooting — he was unable to act in any other films during the production. This put Mifune and his financially strapped production company deeply into debt, creating friction between him and Kurosawa. Although Red Beard played to packed houses in Japan and Europe, which helped Mifune recoup some of his losses, the ensuing years held varying outcomes for both Mifune and Kurosawa. After the film's release, the careers of each man took different arcs: Mifune continued to enjoy success with a range of samurai and war-themed films (Rebellion, Samurai Assassin, The Emperor and a General, among others). In contrast, Kurosawa's output of films dwindled and drew mixed responses. During this time, Kurosawa attempted suicide. In 1980, Mifune experienced popularity with mainstream American audiences through his role as Lord Toranaga in the television miniseries Shogun. Yet Kurosawa did not rejoice in his estranged friend's success, and publicly made derisive remarks about Shogun.
According to his daughter, Mifune turned down an offer from George Lucas to play Darth Vader or Obi Wan Kenobi.
Early in the 1980s, Mifune founded an acting school, Mifune Geijutsu Gakuin (三船芸術学院). The school failed after only three years, due to mismanaged finances.
Mifune received wide acclaim in the West after playing Toranaga in the 1980 TV miniseries Shogun. However, the series' blunt portrayal of the Japanese shogunate and the greatly abridged version shown in Japan meant that it was not as well received in his homeland.
The relationship between Kurosawa and Mifune remained ambivalent. While Kurosawa made some very uncharitable comments about Mifune's acting, he also admitted in Interview magazine that "All the films that I made with Mifune, without him, they would not exist". He also presented Mifune with the Kawashita award which he himself had won two years prior. They finally made something of a reconciliation in 1993 at the funeral of their friend Ishirō Honda. After making tenuous eye contact, they tearfully embraced one another, ending nearly three decades of mutual avoidance. They never collaborated again, nor did they have a chance to restore their friendship fully. Both died within a year of each other.
In 1992, Mifune began suffering from a serious unknown health problem. It has been variously suggested that he destroyed his health with overwork, suffered a heart attack, or experienced a stroke. For whatever reason, he abruptly retreated from public life and remained largely confined to his home, cared for by his estranged wife Sachiko. When she succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 1995, Mifune's physical and mental state began to decline rapidly.
On Christmas Eve 1997, he died in Mitaka, Tokyo, of multiple organ failure at the age of 77. He was survived by his two sons, his daughter, a grandson and two granddaughters.
Mifune won Volpi Cup for Best Actor twice, in 1961 and 1965 respectively. Mifune was awarded the Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon in 1986 and the Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Japanese government in 1993. In 1973 he was a member of the jury at the 8th Moscow International Film Festival. In 1977 he was a member of the jury at the 10th Moscow International Film Festival.
On November 14, 2016, Mifune received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in the motion pictures industry, located at 6912 Hollywood Boulevard.
Of Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune said, "I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him".
Due to variations in translation from the Japanese and other factors, there are multiple titles to many of Mifune's films (see IMDB link). The titles shown here are the most common titles used in the United States.
All shows aired in Japan except for Shogun which aired in the U.S.1968 The Masterless Samurai - 6 one-hour episodes
1971 Daichūshingura - 52 one-hour episodes
1972 Ronin of the Wilderness - 104 one-hour episodes
1973 Yojimbo of the Wilderness - 5 one-hour episodes
1976 The Sword, The Wind and the Lullaby - 27 one-hour episodes
1977 Ronin in a Lawless Town - 23 one-hour episodes
1978 The Spy Appears - 5 one-hour episodes
1978 An Eagle in Edo - 38 one-hour episodes
1979 Hideout in a Suite - 11 one-hour episodes
1979 Akō Rōshi, as Tachibana Sakon
1980 Shōgun - parts 1 & 5 159 minutes parts 2-4 93 minutes
1981 Sekigahara - one seven-hour episode, as Shima Sakon
1981 Bungo's Detective Notes - 3 one-hour episodes
1981 The Ten Battles of Shingo - 2 one-hour episodes
1981 My Daughter! Fly on the Wings of Love and Tears - 1 two-hour episode
1981 The Crescent Shaped Wilderness - 1 two-hour episode
1982 The Ronin's Path - 5 two-hour episodes
1982 The Happy Yellow Handkerchief - 1 two-hour episode
1983 The Brave Man Says Little - 1 eight-hour episode
1983 The Ronin's Path vol. 5 - 1 one-hour episode
1983 Ronin-Secret of the Wilderness Valley - 1 one-hour episode
1984 Soshi Okita, Burning Corpse of a Sword Master - 1 one-hour episode
1984 The Burning Mountain River - 51 episodes
2016 film Mifune: The Last Samurai directed by Steven Okazaki.